Olivier Wieviorka. Divided Memory: French Recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the Present. Trans. George Holoch. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 224 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-7444-4.
Reviewed by Drew Flanagan (Brandeis University)
Published on H-Memory (August, 2012)
Commissioned by Catherine Baker
The ambivalence at the heart of French memory of the Second World War reflects the complexities of the French experience in that war. Defeat and liberation, collaboration and resistance, the suffering of victims and the pride of heroes all mix together to form a web of ideas and emotions regarding the war and its legacy. In Divided Memory, Olivier Wieviorka sets out to untangle this web, tracing the history of the memorialization of the war by the state, political parties, and civil society groups since 1944. He describes the process by which that memorialization has taken its present confused and conflicted form. Wieviorka's account focuses in particular on the impact of high politics on the shape of popular memory as well as the efforts of successive governments to define a coherent memorial policy. Wieviorka shows that the political complications engendered by the French people's widely varied experiences of the war have haunted attempts at unifying and reconciling various narratives of its events, and that deep internal divisions brought about by the occupation have been very slow to heal.
Wieviorka joins a large and illustrious group of historians, such as Henry Rousso (The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 ), Annette Wieviorka (Déportation et génocide: Entre la mémoire et l'oubli ), and Sylvie Lindeperg (Les écrans de l'ombre: La Seconde Guerre Mondiale dans le cinéma français (1944-1969) ), who have written on the history of the memory of World War II in France. His contribution is primarily one of synthesis, providing a slim, readable account that combines well-worn topics, such as memory of Vichy and the Holocaust, with lesser-known topics, such as the role of indigenous troops in the French war effort and the experience of French victims of Allied bombing. For Wieviorka, much of the complication inherent in French memory of the war comes from the "variety of lived experiences" that arose from the war (p. 5). Resistance veterans, ex-collaborators, those who had labored in German factories under the Service de Travaille Obligatoire, and many other such groups each sought a place in the social and political world of postwar France and tried to shape popular memory. In so doing, they came into conflict with one another and with the state.
Wieviorka's chapters proceed chronologically from the liberation and are determined by changes in the ruling regime. The first deals with the period of Charles de Gaulle's provisional government (1944-46), showing how from the beginning Gaullist ideology framed the conflict as a French military victory over Germany while pushing political and racial aspects of the wartime experience to the side. The primary opposition to the Gaullist line during this time was the Communist one, which portrayed Vichy as a regime of and for the propertied class and the Communist Party as the primary element of the French Resistance. The two orthodoxies coexisted uneasily, sharing an emphasis on resistance over collaboration and on celebration of heroes over the mourning of victims.
Chapter 2 deals with the emergence of a new state of affairs under the Fourth Republic (1946-58). With de Gaulle's withdrawal from power, memorial policy became less coherent and exaltation of the Resistance became less frequent. This period saw conflicts over the official definitions of various categories of resisters and victims of the war, as well as the formation of a huge and uncoordinated network of associations representing different groups. "Sometimes assembling tens of thousands of members, the associations did not hesitate to lobby both the executive and legislative branches," Wieviorka writes, and authorities often took them at their word, showing "consideration to the associations rather than conducting an unsparing examination of the past" (p. 47). Attempts to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust fell to the "fragmentation of the world of associations" as survivors' groups were too small to carry much weight and resistors continued to take pride of place in commemorations (p. 73). This period also saw attempts by various groups to claim the language of resistance and collaboration and to apply those categories to current politics, most notably, the war in Algeria.
Chapter 3 deals with de Gaulle's return to power (1959-69) and the strengthening of the Gaullist consensus about the meaning of the wartime period. Official memorialization was shaped by the Gaullist emphasis on reconciliation among the French and with West Germany, and neither emphasis lent itself to a thoroughgoing examination of the facts. Chapter 4, dramatically entitled "Stormy Weather," deals with the breaking of the Gaullist frame between 1969 and 1981. "General de Gaulle's resignation in 1969 created a real break in the state's politics of memory," as a result of which the state gave up much of its former influence on memorialization of the war (p. 107). During this time, groups representing Jewish victims, prisoners of war, and others successfully pressured governments to recognize their unique statuses.
Chapter 5 deals with the Mitterrand era (1981-95), during which events at the highest level of French politics further eroded the comforting myth of French resistance and complicated the picture of Vichy and the Resistance as mutually exclusive and opposed categories. Perhaps most notably, François Mitterrand himself was discovered to have served both Vichy and the Resistance with apparently equal commitment, prompting a major scandal. Wieviorka goes beyond this now well-known story to show how Mitterrand's intervention "significantly affected" another aspect of French memorial policy, the commemorations of the Normandy landing (p. 132). Breaking with the Gaullist emphasis on a France that had liberated itself, Mitterrand recognized the liberation of France by its allies as an important event in the building of a new Europe based on Franco-German cooperation. "Reconciled adversaries," Mitterrand claimed, "are now marching in step" (p. 137).
Wieviorka's final chapter deals with the presidencies of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy (1995-2012), focusing on attempts by both men to move beyond the conflicts that had animated debates over World War II for so long. Wieviorka claims that, under Chirac, "the memory of the Holocaust" took up a "central position. But although this primacy strongly sensitized public opinion to the misdeeds of anti-Semitism and racism, it may have had the side effect of exacerbating competition among victims" (p. 149). The period since 1995 has also seen the rise of new groups of claimants to the titles of hero and victim. After many decades of relative silence, the French state has worked to recognize the sacrifices of the French colonial troops that made up the bulk of the Free French Forces.
Although Wieviorka incorporates accounts of some artistic and cultural expressions of memory, his primary concern is with the political and policy history of memorialization itself. Thus, the book presents itself as a history of memory, but it is primarily a history of memorial policy. Wieviorka's explanatory scheme hinges more on changes in France's leadership than on changes in public opinion or society in general, a choice that has both advantages and drawbacks. His emphasis on policy streamlines the story and renders it more understandable, but sometimes feels oversimplified. Of course, state and party policies can only go so far in determining public attitudes and beliefs. Adopting a relatively narrow analytic scope allows Wieviorka to make his most important intervention, the integration of many threads of the memory of World War II in France that have until now been studied separately. He shows that the memory of World War II is bound up with many other issues that plague French politics, from the tortuous path of decolonization to the legacy of the First World War. Conflicts such as these continue to overlap and intermingle with the conflicted memory of World War II, contributing to that memory's unusual staying power.
Wieviorka remarks repeatedly on the fact that, in spite of decades of effort, the French still have not rallied around one satisfying interpretation of the meaning of their country's experience of World War II. He claims that no policy has succeeded in tying up the loose ends and forging shared meaning out of disparate experiences. As if to demonstrate this, he compellingly traces controversies over various sites of memory, from physical sites, such as the Resistance memorial at Mont Valerien, to books, such as Robert O. Paxton's Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1982), and the famous Guy Moquet letter. Each of these affairs provides a window into the state of the discourse about the war and reveals the lingering bitterness and division that the war continues to provoke. Yet he acknowledges that progress has been made, as the Vichy regime finds fewer defenders and as neglected groups gain official recognition for their suffering and their courage. One is tempted to ask whether the national reconciliation that Wieviorka appears to join de Gaulle in desiring is possible in a pluralist democracy, and whether any state policy could include all private and group memories of the conflict. Regardless, the divisions and conflicts that Wieviorka identifies must be understood if we are to understand the recent past and current state of French politics.
Wieviorka's synthesis has much to offer specialists in French history and in the history of memory, but will be of particular use to undergraduates, graduate students, and teachers of modern French history. Wieviorka writes (and George Holoch translates) accessibly and clearly. Students should read the book in conjunction with a history of France in World War II, as some historical references are not clearly explained for the uninitiated. For scholars of historical memory, Divided Memory shows both the advantages and limitations of a policy-based approach to the study of memory. It now falls to other scholars with other theoretical concerns and frameworks to build on Wieviorka's important efforts at reuniting the many loose strands that together make up French memory of World War II.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Drew Flanagan. Review of Wieviorka, Olivier, Divided Memory: French Recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the Present.
H-Memory, H-Net Reviews.
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